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Penelope, Kate, more: On the scene at Toronto '06

Academy Award hopefuls play the Toronto film festival — ”Volver,” ”Babel,” and ”Rescue Dawn” garner some Oscar buzz

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Emilio Pereda & Paola Ardizzoni

The restless crowds swarmed and squealed with anticipation in front of Toronto’s Paramount theater on the evening of Sept. 10. But they weren’t there to catch a glimpse of Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, or Will Ferrell. Nope, they showed up to watch George W. Bush get fatally shot in the chest — twice — in Death of a President, the British faux documentary that was the hottest ticket of the first half of the 2006 Toronto film festival.

With its sensational, bizarre premise, DOAP was the most politically charged movie at an unusually politically charged event. Normally known for its egalitarian vibe and diverse slate, the Toronto fest — which runs from Sept. 7 to 16 — sported decidedly somber colors for its 31st edition. Whether it was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s much-buzzed-about Oscar-bait drama Babel, with Pitt and Cate Blanchett, footage from Michael Moore’s documentary Sicko, or Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s new acquisition Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing, the state of the world seemed on everyone’s minds. Heck, even the big comedy hit — that would be Sacha Baron Cohen’s inflammatory, uproarious Borat, due for wide release this November — delivered more than its share of social commentary.

For all the fretting over American foreign policy, it wasn’t long before Hollywood got down to its real concern: the Oscar race. Ironically enough, Werner Herzog (Grizzly Man) led the charge with his pro-U.S. Rescue Dawn — about a real-life Navy pilot who escaped from a North Vietnamese prison camp in 1965 — which generated serious Academy Award talk and was picked up by MGM even before it premiered. ”I just was covered in goose bumps by the end of the [screening],” said star Christian Bale. When it came to possible Best Actor nominations, the revelations were Peter O’Toole, for his role in Venus as an aging actor in a May-December romance, and Forest Whitaker, who turned in a terrifying performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. ”I was on The Shield, and everyone and their brother was like, ‘Oh, he’s going to win the Emmy!”’ laughed Whitaker as he ruminated over his award-season chances. ”I wasn’t even nominated!”

Though she’s generating some of the best reviews of her career, Penélope Cruz, star of Pedro Almodóvar’s critically adored Volver, was equally cautious. ”I’ve done 35 movies and I’ve never heard anybody tell me that as [even] a possibility,” she said. Seated next to her, Almodóvar chimed in, ”It would make me very happy if you got nominated! I would [go] crazy that day!”

If the Toronto scuttlebutt is to be believed, so might fans of Kate Winslet. The British actress seemed tickled to hear her name bandied about as a possible contender for her part as an adulterous wife in the indie Little Children. ”This buzz thing is news to me,” she said with a chuckle. ”But it’s amazing that people would consider that this performance would be worthy.”

Unfortunately, Winslet’s other movie didn’t fare as well. Steven Zaillian’s long-delayed All the King’s Men — which had already been adapted into a Best Picture winner back in 1949 — may star Oscar fodder like Winslet, Sean Penn, and Jude Law, but negative word of mouth spread like a particularly nasty campaign ad after its first screening. Before the film’s gala debut, Zaillian was visibly weary. ”For the longest time, [I felt] that we were this little film that was flying under the radar,” he explained. ”Having a big premiere does make me anxious because I never felt that we were an anticipated, hyped film.” At least he had company in disappointment: Ridley Scott’s romantic drama A Good Year, about a man finding his soul in Italy, fizzled out just as quickly. (It didn’t help that 20th Century Fox canceled a press dinner at the last minute.)

Yet outside of the political controversy and Oscar nuttiness, the fest remained decidedly low-key. At press time, even the acquisitions market was slumbering, with no breakout hit threatening to launch the kind of bidding war that saw Thank You for Smoking take home a reported $6.5 million a year ago. Still, that didn’t stop one first-time writer-director, Michael Ian Black (Ed), from making a bold prediction about his romantic comedy The Pleasure of Your Company, which had yet to find a U.S. distributor. ”Not to sound too presumptuous,” he bragged, ”but I hope that by making this movie, I will literally save the world.” And on that score, he clearly wasn’t alone.

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